How ‘Dark Data’ Is Affecting the Environment
When was the last time you opened Google Photos? Or the last time you did something on Facebook, using the password you’ve asked your browser to remember? The last time you accessed an ages-old document you shared with your workplace on Google Drive? If you cannot recall the last time you made use of these things on your device or cloud, then you contributed to dark data. And the current state of the environment is, in part, influenced by it.
The data we generate, use, or transact with, doesn’t exist in an ether. It needs someplace to go — and indeed, it’s stored in servers. In the process, data takes up physical space, and the energy required for the storage may be wreaking havoc on the environment. In other words: the internet pollutes, and our data may be the pollutant.
More specifically, dark data — an underestimated factor in the climate conversation. It is data generated through regular daily interactions between users and organizations but seldom used more than once. Instead, this data is stored by businesses and organizations nonetheless, for the purposes of record-keeping, regulatory compliance, or a possible use in the future. Jasmit Sangoo, a senior director at the UK and Ireland Division of Veritas Techonologies, a global data management company, describes dark data on Information Age as “…data that businesses often don’t need, or have forgotten exists, yet it comprises half of all data organisations store.”
Passwords, user geolocations, information stored in cloud storage, old spreadsheets and presentations of businesses, call logs, all make up dark data. Some of these data, such as geolocations, become irrelevant if not made use of immediately. According to an IBM report, 60% of all data loses its value almost immediately after it is collected.
However, all of this data collection has a toll on the environment. Much like single-use plastic, the accumulation of single-use data leaves a massive mark on the environment. The internet, hosted on establishments known as data centres (massive servers supported by banks of computers) is a hugely energy-intensive and continuous process. And as more and more people and devices get connected, it will consume even more energy. One study estimates that by 2025, the IT industry will use up 20% of all the world’s electricity, and emit up to 5.5% of global carbon emissions — higher than most countries’ annual emissions. Dark data stored away in these servers and data banks without much practical use, then, contribute to a large chunk of internet-related emissions.
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This requires significant attention, especially amidst the ongoing climate crisis. Conventional climate activism is rightly centered around depleting fossil fuels, largely due to the aviation and automobile industries. The focus on the energy-intensiveness of the internet has been relatively rare. While there is some awareness about how much energy cryptocurrencies and the blockchain consume, or on the environmental cost of discarded electronics, awareness about the emissions caused by the internet itself — and the vast tracts of dark data that contributes a large chunk to it — has been minimal.
This is worrying as global internet usage is already generating emissions comparable to that of fossil fuel industries. As Charlotte Truman of ComputerWorld notes, “…only half of the world’s population is connected to the internet…the launch of 5G, the new wave of Internet of Things devices (such as smart watches, AI voice assistants, smart navigators in cars, etc), and a thriving Cryptocurrency scene will only compound the problem.” Dark Data comprises a significant portion of this internet pollution. As Sangoo notes, “…5.8 million tonnes of CO2 will be pumped into the atmosphere this year as a result of storing unnecessary ‘dark data’. That’s more emissions than 80 individual countries.”
The question that arises, then, is about how to tackle this. Firstly, there needs to be more awareness around the estimated environmental costs of the different activities that make up one’s digital footprint, and then encouraging users to reduce them. A BBC report from 2020 suggests a few ways to do so: upgrading electronic devices less frequently, cutting down on subscriptions to emails and newsletters one doesn’t read, and switching to SMS over internet messaging apps.
Tom Jackson and Ian Hodkinson, professors working around data management and information technology at England’s Loughborough University, suggest adopting digital decarbonization as one viable method to check and reduce one’s digital carbon footprint, and also reducing the generation of digital dark data. It involves calculating and being aware of one’s digital activities, and suggesting firms and companies reuse already existing digitally available data instead of generating new dark data every time they interact with a user. Users can contribute to this too, by constantly deleting every item on cloud services that they no longer require.
In recent times, companies have also been asked to update their data collection policies to simply stop collecting the bulk of dark data. Companies and users can update their data collection systems to simply collect less dark data, resulting in lower emissions from dark data. On InformationAge, Sangoo suggests, “to reduce the build-up of dark data, data can also be expired after a set period of time, keeping volumes under control by streamlining the deletion process.” He adds, “A mixture of cultural change, education, leadership and a comprehensive data deletion strategy can make a big difference.”